BOSTON — Real diplomacy doesn’t happen to the sound of applause.
It is a quiet, complex, back-channel enterprise and one that requires a personal relationship between individual heads of state.
In recent weeks, it seems President Barack Obama has come to understand this and has shown a change in the White House’s game plan when it comes to international affairs.
For the first 14 months of his presidency Obama focused on public diplomacy, on taking his message to the people of the world. The message was received with standing ovations from Cairo to Oslo.
But now there is a noticeable and profound shift in strategy in which Obama is getting down to the harder work of statecraft.
To put it in the language of the president’s favorite game, he’s gone from a zone defense to man-to-man.
And he’s going to need a game-changing strategy to succeed in at least one fateful diplomatic challenge that lies ahead, which is securing an international agreement for tougher sanctions against Iran.
The image of Obama in Prague sitting at a table signing a nuclear arms treaty with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, is an example of the kind of tangible success this more direct and conventional diplomatic approach can deliver.
The treaty commits both countries to reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,500 — one-third lower than the previous ceiling set out by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) of 1991.
Obama said the new Start treaty was a milestone, and “just one step on a longer journey” of nuclear disarmament. Medvedev said the new treaty would make the world a safer place.
Nice, predictable and even soothing words. The treaty will now need to be ratified by lawmakers in both countries and then would officially replace the previous treaty.
But before the ink was dry on the document, there were some signs of disagreement between Washington and Moscow on the still-unfolding situation in Kyrgyzstan and whether the leadership that has taken power there would permit the U.S. to continue to use Manas air base to support its mission in neighboring Afghanistan.
And beneath tensions on that issue were some still-outstanding disagreements on Iran pushing their way to the surface. Obama said he expected to secure “strong, tough sanctions” on Iran. But Medvedev was more cautious, saying they needed to be “smart” sanctions and that they could not cripple the Iranian people.
All of the diplomatic initiatives on issues such as arms treaties, Kyrgyzstan and Iran interlock — this is precisely the difficult equation that Obama has to solve in the weeks ahead as the issue of Iran and sanctions is expected to come to a head.
This kind of chess-game diplomacy is a far cry from Obama’s first year in office and the more theatrical oratory and great crowds that he appealed to with a new message of hope and change.
Think back on the scenes of Obama’s public diplomacy in his first year in office:
From a packed Prague square in April 2009, Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons before thousands of cheering Czechs.
From the University of Cairo in June of 2009, Obama reached out to the Muslim world in a powerful and historic speech and made it clear that America has a common cause with Islam and that it will never be at war with the faith.
From Oslo where he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, Obama trumpeted the highest ideals and heavy burdens of America and spelled out a very pragmatic vision of what is a “just war.”
The speeches were applauded near and far and came in stark contrast to the confrontational and unilateral style of former President George W. Bush, a posture that damaged America’s reputation in the world even among its closest allies, according to several significant polls in Europe and elsewhere.
But diplomacy with a backdrop of applause isn’t enough to accomplish the things that need to get done in the world to make it a better place from climate change to terrorism.
So now Obama is focusing on meeting more directly with world leaders behind closed doors.
In just the last month he has met with a host of leaders. He recently had a long phone conversation with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. And he recently hosted French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife for a private dinner. Those two meetings appear to have been designed in part to create a framework for bringing China and France to accept new sanctions on Iran, which they had previously been reluctant to do.
A possible glimpse that the table is being set came Thursday at the United Nations where the Chinese and five other major powers started talks on a U.N. resolution that would impose new sanctions on Iran.
But as the president is learning, this more challenging game of one-on-one diplomacy isn’t always easy.
He traveled to Afghanistan to meet with President Hamid Karzai on a surprise visit and expressed the need for a crackdown on corruption, among other concerns.
It didn’t go over well with the mercurial Karzai who, after Obama left, responded with uncharacteristically tough language. This response did not go unnoticed in the White House and relations between Washington and Kabul are as cool as they have been since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban.
Obama has sought to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only to find out that he, too, is recalcitrant in the face of a U.S. request to put an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Just yesterday, Netanyahu announced he would not attend a heads of state gathering in Washington to discuss nuclear security. The Israeli leader has proven more concerned about playing to his domestic political audience than catering to the special relationship with the U.S.
At the heads of state gathering next week, Obama will host more than 40 leaders to focus on securing nuclear materials. It will be the first time, White House officials told the Washington Post, that a U.S. president has held a single-issue summit with so many foreign leaders and his schedule of bilateral meetings with some of those leaders is being closely watched.
It is the diplomatic equivalent to a full-court press by Obama. And it is the clearest proof to date that Obama understands the clock is running out for imposing sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.
C.M. Sennot is the executive editor of GlobalPost.